Learning about portraiture from old family photos


My sister and I recently found a treasure trove of old family photos, many of which we hadn’t seen before.  As I embarked on the the arduous task of scanning 600 photos, it forced me to slow down and look deeply at each photo.  I began to think about, things like, “why am I attracted to this photo?” “what makes this one interesting and this other one not so much?”.  I realized as I was looking, that I was actually developing insights that might help me in my own portrait photography.

I continue to struggle with portraiture.  People move, mountains don’t.  It takes incredible skill and talent to capture the essence of someone at a point in time in a single frame.  I was surprised to see that these photos transcended time, modern technology, and all the opinions out there on the internet.  Even though I didn’t know these people, I felt like I had a sense of who they are.  From these photos I learned:

  • Capture the personality.  I can imagine how this woman ran her house and how her family responded to her. Even the dog behaved for the photo, and you know the photographer didn’t take 100 shots to get this one. I have a sense she was a real character.
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  • Capture the relationship between people – the good the bad and the ugly.  There is something special about the carefree nature of children, and the formality of adults.  And sometimes even adults can be carefree in front of a camera.
  • Dee and Luther 7_4_1946 Albert Handy and Wife
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  • The environment, or surroundings, play an important if not equal role.  I really struggle with environmental portraiture.  I like to zoom in on the face and the eyes; I see in telephoto, not wide-angle.  It wasn’t until I spent time thinking about these people’s lives that I realized how important the environmental cues were in understanding the person.
  • Cecil and his car img506 1405_MFA_Mom Handy_037Some poses are timeless, so figure out how to work around them.  Having two teenage stepdaughters with a repertoire of two favorite poses, can sometimes be a challenge.  Same pose, different setting.  So when I saw these photos I laughed out loud – I guess its hardwired somewhere in the genetic code.  My approach lately has been, let them do this pose, and then try to convince them to do my idea

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